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Thursday, March 15, 2012
Updated: March 16, 9:54 AM ET
Penguins get band back together

By Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Of all the things that you can imagine would be going through Sidney Crosby's mind as he approached The Relaunch 2.0, what he was thinking was the most basic concern of any great teammate.

Please, please don't let this season-high win streak end when I get back in the lineup.

"I didn't want to be that guy," Crosby said with a chuckle after a 5-2 win over the New York Rangers on Thursday. "I'm glad we won, obviously. I knew the guys were playing well, but there's a bit of an adjustment. … I thought everyone played great and I'm happy we got the win."

Make it 10 wins in a row for the hottest team in hockey, who also got top defenseman Kris Letang back Thursday night as the Penguins imposed themselves on a banged-up Rangers team.

But please spare us the violins, Rangers fans. Let's not start whining about injuries when you're talking about a Penguins team that has been missing key parts for two years.

Crosby joined fellow centers Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal in a game for only the 11th time over the past two seasons. That's just ridiculous.

What star winger James Neal envisioned when he was traded to Pittsburgh in February 2011 has finally materialized after 13 months. Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury all playing alongside him.

"This is the team," Neal told ESPN.com. "It's fun. It's exciting to look around the room. When you're out practicing and flying around, just the atmosphere. It's a deep lineup with a ton of great players. It was exciting to have a full lineup tonight and come out especially in this atmosphere in such a big game. It was a lot of fun. Great to have those guys back."

Maybe Rangers GM Glen Sather wasn't trying to be coy at all Wednesday in Boca Raton, Fla., when he said he thought the Penguins with Crosby back were the best team in the league.

If everyone stays healthy, it's hard to see anyone in the East beating them. The Penguins moved to within four points of the Rangers with a game in hand and another head-to-head matchup left this season.

I won't be the only one to say it, but my money's heavily on the Penguins overtaking the Rangers for first place, especially when you look at how each club is trending with three weeks to go.

"The possibilities are unlimited I guess," Letang said when asked about the potential now with everyone back. "We have a great team. Especially our goaltending has been unbelievable this year. And having Sid back … it's great to see."

The band is back together for the first time in what has felt like eternity.

"I don't think anybody really wants to talk about it too much, we just want to go with it," Crosby smiled. "But it's really awesome to have all the guys together. Usually you're seeing one or two guys doing rehab. To have everyone come together in a big win like this is obviously a lot of fun."

Letang was terrific in his return to the lineup, a career-high plus-5 with one assist.

But all eyes, of course, were on No. 87. After somewhat of a slow start to the game, Crosby looked more and more comfortable out there, driving to the net as always and not looking like a player that had any interest in changing his game.

He played 16:00 on the dot, just six seconds more than his previous return Nov. 15 against the Islanders. He set up Chris Kunitz for a goal and was plus-3 on the night.

Asked to compare his two comeback games, Crosby said he tried to maintain more emotional control this time around.

"I was just trying to calm myself a little bit more than I was last time," he said. "I was pretty excited that time. I mean, I was excited this time, too, but I didn't want to get caught trying to do too much. I just wanted to be responsible out there and doing the right things, those details are important especially in big games like this. I was just trying to make sure I tried [to be] as even keel as I could. It wasn't easy, but to get the result we got makes things a lot easier."

Head coach Dan Bylsma started Crosby between Matt Cooke (who had two goals) and Tyler Kennedy, but shifted him to a line between Steve Sullivan and Pascal Dupuis. Crosby also played a bit of wing alongside Staal at one point. A bit of everything.

"Pretty much what I expected as far as ice time, how I felt, everything felt pretty good," Crosby said. "It felt like I was able to get more comfortable as time went on."

Eventually, Bylsma will have an interesting decision on his hands. The top line of Malkin, Neal and Kunitz has been dynamite all season long, perhaps the best line in the NHL.

But at some point, once Crosby has his "A" game fully going and his minutes are ready to climb, one has to think he'll need to get either Kunitz or Neal on his wing to better complement him -- not to mention better balance out Pittsburgh's top-six attack.

Betting money is on Kunitz to be that man, given his past playing time alongside Crosby. It's uncanny how Crosby found him for a goal Thursday night in the brief moment in the game when both players were on the ice together at even strength.

Juggling ice time and line combinations is a trickier assignment now for Bylsma. But as he said Thursday morning, it's a problem he's more than happy to have.

No kidding.